‘Can I count on you? Are you there for me?’ Do we ever ask our partner this directly, out loud? Maybe some of us do – and maybe we get the answer we want to hear. But more often it’s an unspoken question at the back of our minds. ‘Do I matter to you? If I tell you what’s bothering me, will you listen? Really listen?’
Couples usually come for relationship therapy when one or other has reached a point where they are not feeling heard by their partner. There may be arguments and full-on fights or there may be a chilly silence but generally one of them is thinking, ‘I can’t get through to you and I just can’t go on like this’. Eventually he or she says, ‘I think we should go and talk to someone’.
Mary and Joe* show up for their first appointment with me. Mary is tense and looks like she is simmering inside. Joe is looking at the floor and avoiding my eye.
I start as I often do with a question. ‘So, Joe,’ I say, ‘what do you think Mary hopes to get from being here today?’ ‘I wish I knew,’ says Joe. ‘We argue a lot and she says I don’t listen but I do. I just don’t see the point of going round and round the same things all the time.’
‘How does that fit for you, Mary?’ I ask. ‘Joe says you argue all the time and you feel he doesn’t listen?’ ‘Well he doesn’t,’ Mary snaps. ‘I’m tired of trying to get through to him. He tunes everything out and then I’m left to do all the hard work. We have a problem with one of our kids at the moment and Joe just says, “She’ll be fine, don’t worry; it’s a phase she’s going through”.’
I begin to wonder if it’s not so much the arguments and whatever may be going on with the kids, as that a deeper disconnect has grown between Mary and Joe in their relationship. I ask them to tell me more about the arguments. The most frequent topic, it seems, is their 14-year old daughter Chloe. She’s a bright girl who has always done well at school but lately she’s become quieter and she’s spending a lot of time in her room.
‘I’m really worried,’ says Mary. ‘Sometimes she won’t even come down for meals. She’s just at that age when all sorts of things can happen with girls. But when I try to talk to Joe and tell him how worried I am, he says I’m being ridiculous.’ ‘Mary is making too much of it,’ Joe says. ‘Chloe is a teenager now, she needs space. If Mary backs off and lets her grow up, she’ll be fine.’
I encourage them to step back from thinking about Chloe for a moment, and instead tune into the deeper feelings brought up by what each is saying. As we talk, Joe begins to realise that Mary’s worry is causing her to feel really pressured inside and that he has seemed unsympathetic. Mary starts to understand it’s not that Joe doesn’t care, it’s that he feels his daughter needs a different style of parenting now she’s in her teens.
They realise they haven’t been properly hearing each other’s concerns and this is impacting on their own relationship as a couple. They need to have a deeper discussion now on how to parent Chloe because this is a new phase of family life. If they can’t connect and understand each other better, it may push them apart.
Five tips for a better connection with your partner
· Don’t expect your partner to read your mind. As nice as it would be to think they’ll always know what’s bugging you, they probably won’t, so tell them – but keep it short and simple.
· If you’re the one listening, don’t tell your partner not to worry. At this point, they are worried and they need you to hear and acknowledge that.
· Sometimes we just need to feel heard. We don’t always want or need a solution; in fact, it can be quite annoying when your partner keeps trying to ‘fix’.
· Instead of dismissing your partner’s viewpoint (‘You’re making a fuss about nothing; that’s never going to happen’), far better to respond with something like, ‘I hear you’re really concerned about that. If that’s how you’re feeling, I can understand that you’re upset’.
· Listen and be enlightened! Even if you don’t agree on the issue, whatever it is, your partner is giving you valuable information about how they feel. Until each person can fully hear the other’s point of view, you are going to keep going round in frustrating circles!
* Names and scenarios are fictitious, based on composites of client sessions.
© Eve O’Kelly 2020